Indigenous population in Latin America: opportunities and challenges

UNDP Peru Indigenous

In a recent publication of the Global American Journal, the inclusion of indigenous population in Latin American countries was highlighted as a major challenge in terms of political representation, economic prosperity, development, healthcare or access to justice.

More than 40 percent of the indigenous population in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru live in poverty, as stated in the Global American Report. The cases of Guatemala and Mexico were highlighted as examples that show on the one hand best practices and areas of opportunity for inclusion of indigenous communities but on the other hand failure to act on those opportunities.

Mexico has the largest absolute indigenous population in the region with 17 million people compared to over 45 million people in the whole region. This high proportion of indigenous people is raised as a challenge on how they are represented at the federal, state or even local political level.  The Global American research stated that Mexico has the lowest proportion of indigenous representatives in the region. Mexico’s parliament only has 14 indigenous representatives elected which means a striking representation gap between the percentage of indigenous people in the country and the percentage of indigenous members of the legislature: 81% followed by a gap of 73% in Peru and 69% in Guatemala.

Mexico does not demand ethnic-based quotas within political parties’ lists but since 2001, parties have been taking indigenous populations into consideration when drawing electoral districts. However, their representation is still one of the lowest in the region.

On the exercise of prior consultation on decisions affecting indigenous peoples, the Mexican Constitution recognizes the right to prior consultation.  Article 2 explicitly states that the government should consult with the indigenous peoples when implementing development plans at the national, state, and municipal level. So far, there is no single overarching law that defines how prior consultation should be implemented in the country.

In this sense, a few weeks ago the legal protection granted by a judge to the community of Milpa Alta, a Southern District of Mexico City, has been considered as a critical decision by local leaders. Following a historical controversy with the government in the capital, the right of the indigenous communities to be consulted on any decision or public policy that affects them or their territories legitimately recognized as original peoples has been recognized by a judge. As stated by the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, this legal text includes the guarantees on indigenous rights established in international and national legislation such as ILO Convention 169.

As part of the conclusions of the Working Group on Sustainability and Shared Societies convened by the Club de Madrid through its Shared Societies Project,  the special relationship that indigenous peoples have with their ancestral and customary territories is a critical reason to ensure their participation in decisions that affect their lands. The ability of indigenous peoples not only to maintain their own cultural context but also to fulfil their responsibilities to future generations, demonstrates the significance of their own local government systems, as is stated by this recent judicial decision on the community of Milpa Alta in Mexico City.

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